As I write this, London is awash with little dots of red. Poppies wink in buttonholes and stare up from boxes in train stations. Men and women in uniform, old and young, suddenly seem to be everywhere in the city, eyeballing the naked lapel of my coat. Usually at this time of year I dutifully buy my poppy and pin it to my chest, more routine than anything else. This year, though, I feel uncomfortable and unsure about the ritual of donning this symbol, skirting around the servicemen and women who have appeared on every other street corner.
I feel similarly ambivalent about Lines, the aptly timed new show at The Yard. But then the show itself projects a complex, difficult ambivalence about its subject matter. The title is a reference to army barracks: lines are where soldiers sleep, change, wash. It’s where they do their living and their thinking in between the action of training and conflict. Pamela Carter’s play, informed by her and director Jay Miller’s conversations with soldiers past and present, zooms in on four new recruits, all signed up for different reasons. It probes – without necessarily judging – their motivations, their interactions and the punishing training they undergo.
Crucially, Lines shows these soldiers at the centre of a world in flux. This is the first year in more than a century that British troops are not involved in a conflict somewhere in the world. Meanwhile conflict itself is constantly mutating as a result of technology and terrorism, moving further and further away from the romanticised Hollywood version of war that these men compulsively regurgitate. Away from the army barracks, conceptions of masculinity are changing, and damaging political and economic forces constrict the possibilities for many young men (and women). As each of the characters here acknowledges, there aren’t a lot of other options open to them.
While the premise is straightforward enough, Lines is a complicated and often intentionally confusing 90 minutes. For a start, its perspective is ever-shifting. In the longer first half, we mostly see the interactions – tentative, teasing, macho – between these four very different men as they are drilled into becoming a team. These exchanges, though, are constantly interspersed with the vocalised thoughts of each of the recruits. It’s often unclear – deliberately so, I think – where private reflection ends and group bonding begins. As they prepare for (possible) war, it’s vital that these trainee soldiers form a unit, each always having the others’ backs. And so as the days and weeks slide by, individual identities blur, all becoming absorbed into the group.
There’s also a sense, despite Alex Lowde’s ostensibly naturalistic design of beds and lockers, that we are inside these soldiers’ minds as much as we are in the barracks. We might be stationed in the one place where they rest, but Miller’s production can’t stay still. The frenetic movement – punctuated with blinding bursts of light and the fierce, distorted commands of the corporal, all the while underscored by Josh Grigg and Manni Dee’s throbbing soundtrack – reflects the adrenaline and anxiety of the men’s internal experiences as their training intentionally overwhelms them. The would-be soldiers might be preparing to fight the likes of ISIS, but Lines reveals their coaching as little more than radicalisation of another kind.
The characters themselves are designed to surprise. When we first see them, changing out of civvies and into uniform, they’re an undifferentiated line-up of aggressive masculinity, all strutting and flexing. But as they change and change again (there’s much taking on and off of clothes, an emblem of shifting identities), more facets of their personalities emerge, often subverting what we’ve been taught to expect from military narratives. Not long into training, Tony Clay’s Locke straightforwardly reveals that he’s gay; neat-as-a-pin Valentine (Ncuti Gatwa) explains that he’s here not to get laid and shoot guns, but for God and honour. Meanwhile Robbie O’Neill’s Mackay might have a more stereotypical thirst for heroism and violence, but he’s also cheerfully accepting of and affectionate towards his fellow soldiers.
Casual racism and homophobia – two more features that we might expect from army life – are both flirted with but then disavowed. Except, that is, in the form of sloppy, bigoted Perk, the weak link in the quartet. His bed always messily unmade, he struggles with army life while directing half-jokey slurs towards his comrades. He needs to be here – what else is there for him, save a dead-end job in Poundland? – but it’s clear from the beginning that he won’t be able to keep up. As played by Tom Gill, he’s difficult to like but impossible to entirely hate. Restless and jerky, he vibrates with pent-up energy, a fidgeting symbol of the directionless frustration of so many young men from whom hope and compassion have been robbed. And when the others finally turn on him, as of course they must, the tension is unbearable.
Then, after an oddly swift and not entirely necessary interval, that carefully mounted tension – along with Perk – disappears. We still seem to be in the barracks, but the text becomes more abstract, more confusing. Locke, Valentine and Mackay are all describing deaths (brave, bloody, triumphant deaths) in conflict. Their own? Other soldiers’? Or those of self-sacrificing heroes in glibly glorifying Hollywood movies? As the scene continues, it appears to be the latter, but once again Miller’s production is calculatedly unclear. The point, perhaps, is that the boundaries between those different deaths have themselves become clouded, as has the distinction between celebration of comradeship and critique of aggression. Watching this sequence, a kind of queasiness creeps over me: a mixture of discomfort at the aestheticising of war in the characters’ language and uncertainty about the many competing politics of conflict at play.
“Peace,” says one of the recruits, “is just a gap between wars.” It’s a statement, like so much of the show, that can be read multiple ways. Peace, in one sense, can only be defined in opposition to war, a truth that to me feels implicitly critical of the violence that constantly seeps across the globe. But for these soldiers, trained and poised for war, peace is just that: a gap, a period of waiting around. I think again about all those poppies. Are they markers of respect and remembrance? Problematic badges of patriotism? Or are they hollowed-out symbols, tools deployed for political point-scoring? Lines might coincide with the annual performance of remembrance, but it isn’t about to provide any answers.